CSIRO staff have voiced their concerns over the federal government’s public service staffing cap, arguing that it could harm the organisation in the long term.
The coalition’s Average Staffing Level (ASL) Cap was introduced in the 2015-16 federal budget as an effort to restrict government employment numbers to 2006-07 levels.
In a submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee, CSIRO’s Staff Association revealed that the agency has had to increase its outsourcing of work to external contractors and consultants under the strict cap.
“Despite denials to staff that a recruitment freeze is in place, CSIRO Executive have conceded to the Staff Association that nearly 70% (170 positions) of current vacancies (250 total) have been placed on hold,” it wrote.
The union said it had been conducting surveys with CSIRO staff across the country on the pressures of the ASL cap. Seven of the eight CSIRO Business Units reported they had been considering or actively engaging external contractors to meet scientific and research support demand.
Numerous anonymous staffers expressed their concerns in the submission:
“This uncertainty is putting pressure on our morale which in turn impacting our performance. On the other side the organisation is outsourcing services from highly paid contractor which can be done by us,” a Mineral Resources staffer from Sydney said.
“We are already struggling to deliver the project work now and have already knocked back work because we simply don’t have the people (due to hiring restrictions from the ASL cap) to deliver it,” a CSIRO energy researcher from Newcastle explained. “This is hurting CSIRO in the long term as the tacit project knowledge and expertise leave the organisation when the contractor walks out the door.”
“My team currently hires three independent contractors in order to get the work done. One of them is working full time, the other two work part time. I am on a fixed term contract, and am extremely concerned about the prospects of having my contract renewed when my term is up… this impacts very negatively on my happiness, job satisfaction and ability to focus on my tasks,” an Oceans and Atmosphere researcher in Hobart reported.
The union claimed the Department of Finance had given CSIRO “informal, verbal advice” that its cap of 5,193 staff for 2019-20 would “apply strictly to the organisation” and that the agency was already set to exceed the limit.
The opposition has also expressed concern over the staffing cap, deeming it a continuation of the government’s “war on science”.
“Labor is concerned that the Morrison Government’s cap on public sector staffing numbers is hurting the CSIRO and undermining its role in advancing science and innovation,” shadow minister for science Brendan O’Connor said in a statement.
“The government’s arbitrary staffing cap has seen jobs cut at the CSIRO, with others placed on insecure contracts and conditions.”
O’Connor noted that a motion was recently passed at the Nationals’ Federal Council calling for a national science watchdog to oversee scientific papers, which could “undermine the integrity of peer review with political intervention”.